(Grayscale) Chapter 6
City dark. Philly bled in from the windows and drifted through the dark room, revealing the outlines of what inhabited it – glimpses of the couch and coffee table, and the mounds of paper neatly stacked and aligned in rows on the floor. The windows of the room were cracked open, allowing the chill of the night air to penetrate. A crisp, fall chill laced with the scents of car exhaust and roasted cashews from the vendor on the corner, the air as corrupted as the diluted darkness of the room.
Quinton sat naked on the cold, hardwood amid the piles of paper. Hours before, he had dismembered the Jonathon Thomas manuscript into parts relevant to the artist’s visual interpretation and paired those parts with the various sketches he had created over the several nights since he agreed to try out the partnership proposed by the writer. The sketching, the dismembering and the cataloguing eventually consumed the entire floor and the artist was immersed.
He perspired despite the cold temperature of the room and felt a sick, inner heat, like a flu, that drove him to disrobe. As he sat in the darkness, his unprotected body reacted to the combination of sweat and cold and he trembled, and the trembling exacerbated the throbbing in the palm of his hand. It all pointed to a serious infection of the wound, the sort of malady that was accompanied by rot and oozing. But that was not so. The wound was nearly healed. A crusted scab protected the flesh, the stitches consumed by the body, the healing process undertaking its normal course. Still, the throbbing persisted and so did the fever heat.
He was afraid to look at the scab and kept it concealed in a loose fist. The night before, it opened like a deep, fleshy cavern. Skin flaps pulled apart to expose the hollowness, emanating from its depths a faint breeze that smelled earthy. The wound pulsated and sputtered bubbles of blood from the very edges of the skin flaps, the hole wide enough to encompass his entire palm and was an impossible depth given the size of his hand. It was like looking into an actual tunnel with no definable endpoint.
When Quinton lowered his head for a closer look, horrified by the gaping hole, he saw skin flaps pulled together in defense like closed lips. As he did every time he needed to make the dreams go away, Quinton closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath and held it for as long as he could. When it felt right, he exhaled. When the fleshy cavern was still there, he went through the exercise again, and again. Eventually, the scab returned to normal.
Quinton was twelve the first time a wakeful dream came to be. That is what he called it.
It started as shadows. Similar to the voids of light that appeared against walls and under feet. Except Quinton’s shadows had mass and they weren’t tied to a master that must block light for them to exist. They were independent of any object and moved freely at the periphery of Quinton’s vision. Eventually, the shadows moved from the periphery into the open and interacted with the boy.
The shadows were just the beginning. Soon after, other elements entered the wakeful dreams. The sight was paralyzing, the unnatural invading the normal, the way it should happen only in slumber. One moment normal, the next bizarre. When a break in the norm would happen, it could be as pleasant as neon flowers emerging from the pavement, or as horrific as an H.P. Lovecraft monstrosity. They were infrequent but when they came, they swept in with no warning.
At first, he told his parents, and teachers, and concern surrounded the boy, which led to tests and counseling, and eventually he stopped talking about it altogether so others would lose interest.
Quinton’s imagination. Those wakeful dreams. He drew what he saw, and by finding a way to process the manifestations, the boy discovered a love of art.
The wakeful dreams stopped by the time he reached high school. It was not until his third year of college, when the thoughts in his mind were too much to handle, the wakeful dreams re-emerged and seemed to feed on the thoughts he tried to repress. The more he ignored both, the more they penetrated, the stronger they were. The darker, the more wicked. So he drank.
Quinton could barely make out the sketches that rested atop the piles of paper in the darkness, but he knew them by memory and was disappointed with each one. They were flat. They lacked substance. They didn’t capture the essence of the characters. It was the first time Quinton had ever used photos as the source of his art and they didn’t provide the same visceral experience as being part of a real scenario like the bars or the Philly streets; or being in the unreal like his wakeful dreams. Something was missing; an understanding of the characters, the way he understood the people or manifestations that floated around him. Quinton knew their faces now, Allison and Reed, but he didn’t really see them in those photos. He didn’t understand who they were. Drawing from photos was like drawing on drink, the world sedated and two dimensional, a plastic rendition of what is real. Plastic. The dilemma amused him. If only he could have lived through the pain of the past in two dimensional photographs, he never would have drowned in drink.
When Quinton strained to see, Reed was the clearest of the two. The photos were a barrier but he understood the poet’s vulnerabilities, like so many he had drawn before. A celebrated poet who peaked at a young age and was never able to live up to his early work with anything that followed. Abandoned at a small college in rural Pennsylvania, no family, no connections, and the pursuit of a woman far too young for him in what could be an attempt to re-capture whatever had made him special when he was younger. Quinton knew where Reed was born, that he was the son of a heart surgeon, that he lived a childhood of privilege. He knew where the poet went to college, every place he ever lived, that he was married once and had no children, that he had asthma, that he was arrogant and not very liked by his colleagues. He was what Quinton had drawn before. Insecurity. Unfulfilled. Failure. Desperately clawing to hold on.
Jonathon Thomas compiled pages of notes on Reed. For Allison, there was one page of notes. It listed the town she claimed she was from, although no trace of her roots could be found. The address where she allegedly grew up was a vacant lot where a house once stood but burned down before she would have been born and the previous owner had a different last name. There were no past employers, no social security number, no friends. She was merely Reed’s wife for less than a year.
He picked up Allison’s diary from the floor, fingers finding the cloth bookmark that identified the next entry. Such bizarre entries that begged more questions than provide answers, the thought made him strain a closed lipped, jagged smile in between the shivering and the pain. Quinton remembered several critics using those same words about his own work.
He read the handwritten words on the page.
The Man. His face close to the Girl. Does he sleep? She hears him breathe, in and out. The sound of his breath, then her own. It is rhythmic and reminds her of when she used to dance, when she was someone else.
They share the same space, but it is his space. Does he believe he has control? Don’t they all? The Man. He sleeps and she watches. His breath brushes her nose. He is unguarded the way a hungry mouse is in an open field when preoccupied by hunger. Is that love?
Now the Girl’s eyes are closed and she pretends to sleep. She feels him watching her. Is he admiring? Examining?
She parts her lips slightly so he can better hear her breathe. Her body, her skin, on exhibition. How deep does he want to peer? The Girl feels as though she could be dissected. If he had the right instruments. If he had the right light. If he had steady hands. Could he cut a straight line? Could he then reach in and pull out her insides? Such a messy proposition.
The air is hot and humid. Skin is moist. Nightgown clings to her body. Eyes are closed but she knows he examines her skin. The sun's rays have left their mark on her fair complexion, ever so subtle, but he needs the Girl to protect her skin.
His perfect thing. She is a softness that leaves him weak and stupid. He called her a poem that he saw in his head. Every stanza was as clear as daylight that he considered himself not worthy to write.
The entry ended with the three spirals, two atop one. The same spirals that riddled the spine of the diary.
Quinton tossed the diary aside and grabbed a blanket from the couch to cover his sweaty, trembling body. If only he could sleep. He wrapped himself in the blanket and traversed the cluttered landscape, avoiding the mounds of paper, feeling the chill slither into the opening of the blanket before he managed to close the windows.
His brain zoomed in on the various pictures of Allison, like a telephoto lens, zoomed far enough to examine her skin. So fair, like cream. It reminded him of…
He passed by the sketch on the wall, the one he had drawn so long ago and as he tried to focus his brain on the images of Reed and Allison, there was the sound of a sigh on the periphery and a forgotten scent of flowers with a hint of vanilla. Tears instantly formed in Quinton’s eyes. Thinking of the sketch where the sound and scent originated but not daring to look back, he mouthed the words ‘no, please’ over and over as the tears fell.
Quinton disappeared into the black of the hallway.